September 24—"The Italian navigator has landed" was the wartime-coded message announcing the successful first operation of a nuclear reactor on December 2, 1942. The expression refers to Columbus's exploration of continents previously unknown to Europeans, but also could apply to the exploration of another unknown continent, the atomic nucleus. The "Italian navigator" in this case was Enrico Fermi—the man who achieved the first controlled nuclear reaction.
Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on September 29, 1901, and the centenary of his birth falls on Saturday, September 29, 2001. Celebrations are planned for September 28 and 29 at a number of institutions: the Enrico Fermi National Laboratory (Fermilab), named for the great physicist after his death; the University of Chicago, where Fermi achieved the first self-sustaining chain reaction and initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy; and the University of Pisa, where Fermi studied from 1918 to 1922.
This drawing depicts the historic December 2, 1942, event-the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
Fermi received the Nobel Prize in 1938 for "his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." When Fermi and his family left fascist Italy to receive the Nobel Prize in Sweden, they did not go back. Instead, they went to stay in London and then moved to the United States in 1939.
Fermi's lifetime accomplishments caused him to be recognized as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. Many objects in the world of physics bear his name: Fermium, the 100th element in the Periodic Table; the Enrico Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois; the Fermi Award—a prestigious Presidential science award; the Enrico Fermi Institute—a component of the Physical Sciences Division at the University of Chicago; a unit of distance (10^-15 m); fermion—one of the two broad categories of particle; an energy level (condensed matter physics); a type of interaction; a constant; a temperature; a gas; and most recently a brand new U.S. postage stamp.
Fermi died on November 28, 1954. Another Fermi centennial celebration is planned for November 27, 2001, near the 100th anniversary of his death. A symposium entitled "The Legacy of Enrico Fermi in America: Science, Energy, and International Collaboration," will be held at the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Invited speakers are Harold Agnew, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who knew Enrico Fermi personally and will share his recollections and "home movies"; Luciano Maiani, current Director-General of CERN, who will speak about international collaboration; and Jack Marburger, current Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the President's announced choice for Science Advisor.
Contact: Nona Shepard, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, (202) 586-5767, firstname.lastname@example.org , about the Fermi Awards or the November symposium at the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Otherwise, contact the public affairs staff listed on the individual Fermi websites.
For a summary of accomplishments of this great experimentalist and theorist, and a comprehensive list of related web resources, see "Enrico Fermi: Commemorating the Centennial of His Birth," on the DOE R&D Accomplishments website.